Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path, Part 1

For one reason or another traditional Dispensationalism has been abandoned by all but a relatively few Bible students. The wild success of the Left Behind novels is no sound indicator to the contrary. Two much better indicators which point decisively the other way are the degree of serious attention given to this point of view in most Biblical and Systematic theologies, which is nugatory; and the stunning lack of scholarly works in these areas by Dispensationalists themselves. As to the latter, I believe I could count on one hand the publications of traditional Dispensationalists of the past generation which even attempt to rival the surfeit of such work from covenant theologians. I say it as a friend; Dispensationalism may be likened to an old car pulled to the side of the road with serious transmission problems. And it has been there for a good long while looking like it needs hauling away.

I feel no need to prove this, as any perusal of the volumes of biblical and systematic theology which have been rolling off the shelves for the past 25 years will show that their authors don’t consider Dispensationalism to be much more than a smudge on the edges of the theological map.

This being said, here are some thoughts on five sectors of truth where Dispensational Theology (DT) might be renewed.

1. Self-Understanding: What Are We About?

In many ways, defining oneself by “dispensations” is more restricting than defining oneself under the theological covenants of Covenant Theology (CT). The dispensations of Dispensationalism are in reality blinders which severely attenuate the exciting potential of plain reading of the Bible. They are non-essentials which have been borne aloft for so long that no one has bothered to look up to see how abject they actually are. What do the concepts “innocence,” “conscience,” “government,” “promise,” “law,” “church” (or “grace”), and “kingdom” have in common as theological ideas (other than their obvious adoption by dispensationalists)?

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What is a "Dispensationalist" Theology?

A Dispensationalist is a Christian who sees in Scripture certain clear divisions in the progress of revelation in which God governs history. At its best this is done on the basis of the covenants revealed in the Bible. A “dispensation” (Greek, oikonomia) is an administration or economy, wherein, within a certain period of time (known to God, but afterwards revealed to man), God pursues His plan through the lives of men. The term oikonomia is made up of two other words: oikos, meaning house, and nemo, meaning to administer, manage, or dispense. Literally, an oikonomia is a house-management or household administration. In its theological usage it is well suited to describe what we might call a divine economy. This is much the way the word is used in Ephesians 1:10; 3:2, 9; Colossians 1:25-26, and 1 Timothy 1:4. These passages also show that Paul held to the reality of certain dispensations in the broad sense given above.

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Progressive Revelation, Part 6

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In this last post in the series I intend to do three things. First, I will be drawing the conclusion that there are two very different ideas, and hence definitions, of “progressive revelation” (PR), and both operative words (“progressive” and “revelation”) mean something very different both separately and together, depending on who is using them. Thus, there is no really agreed upon definition of this term within Evangelicalism (or, indeed, biblical studies generally). Second, I want to quickly address the straw man issue (I’ll call it Objection 2). This is in case someone says that I have misrepresented the position of covenant theologians. I have not, and I shall furnish a couple more examples to prove it. Finally, in line with my call for plain speech and good communication, I want to close by asking which position on progressive revelation really is what one would be led to think it is.

Two conflicting ideas, and the importance of recognizing fuzzy definitions

The definition of progressive revelation which I have been commending in this article is as follows.

Progressive Revelation is the view that supplemental disclosures about a particular subject are built upon and traceable back to an original grounding revelation. The combined witness to the subject must evidence enough commonality so as to present a comprehensible picture of the subject which can be cross-checked and verified against every instance of the progression.

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Do You Agree with Jesus?


Two of Jesus’ disciples were walking along the road to Emmaus on the first resurrection Sunday, and they were distraught: “Jesus of Nazareth who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God” was dead (ESV, Luke 24:19). They “had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21), but now he was dead. Their grief touches us even across the years.

A stranger appears and walks besides them and berates them by saying, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken!” (Luke 25:26). And then Luke describes what the stranger, who was Jesus, said to them, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Jesus on the Emmaus road did not add to Scripture. He did not give them a new revelation like what we have from John in the book of Revelation, but rather he explained or interpreted the Scriptures to prove that the Old Testament requires that it be “necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory” (v. 26).

The disciples’ “hearts burn within” them as he “opened up…the Scripture” (v. 32), but the stranger made no claim to authority. All that he did was interpret the existing Bible for them to convince them that the Old Testament taught the suffering, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Because Jesus is not arguing from authority or adding to the Scriptures, Jesus’ interpretation is repeatable by others. The disciples and modern readers of the Bible can return to the Old Testament and find the necessity of Christ’s suffering and resurrection in its pages without the New Testament.

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What is Progressive Revelation? Part 5

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In the first part of this series I referenced some things to which I should now like to return. Even before getting into what is meant when the two words “progressive revelation” are brought together, I said that we needed to settle on what revelation is. At bottom revelation is communication from God to man. The next question up is, how accessible a communication is it? Is it both constant and consistent? That is to say, does the revelation crop up repeatedly, and/or unequivocally? Does it have a character which is traceable backwards and forwards?

What did you expect?

I gave the examples of the Trinity and the Messianic prophecies to do with the first coming. I illustrated it by imagining tracking leopard tracks in the snow. One would expect the tracks to lead to a leopard. In the same way, a reliable progressive communication about a subject through time would produce an expectation based on the data contained in the words being revealed (unless the words were incompetent or deliberately misleading), just as one would not expect leopard tracks to lead to a bear, one would not expect OT predictions of Christ to be fulfilled in someone born in Jerusalem, from the tribe of Asher, begotten through an earthly father. Why? Because the those things were not part of what was communicated! And any “transformation” in the subject’s identity along the line of progression would manifestly terminate that progression!

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What is Progressive Revelation? Part 3

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We have seen that the idea of progressive revelation is connected to two things: the intent behind the communication, and the boundaries prescribed by previous revelation/communication. I have said that these two concerns, together with a definition of the adjective “progressive” as building or augmenting one thing upon another, necessitates an approach in which the picture does not change out of recognition, but is trackable both forwards and backwards from every point in the progression. This implies that the progressions are self-evident at every point along the line of revelation, even though the full picture may not be seen for what it is until the very end. This in turn produced the following definition:

Progressive Revelation is the view that supplemental disclosures about a particular subject are built upon and traceable back to an original grounding revelation. The combined witness to the subject must evidence enough commonality so as to present a comprehensible picture of the subject which can be cross-checked and verified against every instance of the progression.

When “progressive revelation” becomes misleading

Notice that commonality and continuity of ideas are essential to this definition. If there is ambiguity there is always uncertainty about what is being revealed. This results in a “progression” which may not appear as a true advancement. If that is the case the terminology “progressive revelation” only refers at best to the completedrevelation, but not the process of revelation. This makes the adjective “progressive” misleading, for if one cannot trace the progression, then it hardly deserves to be called either “progressive,” nor “revelation.”

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What is Progressive Revelation? Part 1

Introduction: the Bible as a communication

The Bible is one Book, not two. It should be read from front to back, not in reverse. Tracing the chronology of Scripture is, in general terms, an important part of Bible study. Everyone is aware that there are cases where specific time-slots cannot be allocated with certainty to some episodes in Judges or the historical vantage point of Obadiah. You will always find a more liberally inclined person ready to correct you about the date of Daniel or “Second Isaiah” or Matthew’s Gospel. But from the standpoint of someone who says he believes in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the Bible is a fundamentally divine Word to creatures formed in God’s image.

This Word from God, which we now have in the Bible, was produced over many hundreds of years. As the story of the Bible unfolds certain things are put in place which will relate to things that appear later on. In most cases these key things are initiated by God Himself, the Author both of the Book we’re reading, and of the circumstances we read about.

The Bible is not simply a storybook. The Bible is, as I like to call it, “a word from outside.” By this I mean that it comes from the One who made and sustains our reality, both now and in the future. And this One, the God of Creation, has done two things which are presupposed by the existence of the Bible. He has spoken truth to human beings, and He has enabled human beings to speak His truth to one another. Putting aside for the moment the problem of our common failure to reflect God’s truth in our every communication (something I’ll return to), the fact remains that communication—from God first and then to each other—is going on. So before we can get into our main subject of progressive revelation, we must initially ponder what makes for effective communication.

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